Picture Ohio! – Flowers in the Snow

Skunk Cabbage, Rocky River Reservation, Cleveland Metroparks
Skunk Cabbage, Rocky River Reservation, Cleveland Metroparks

It’s early March in northeast Ohio, and winter is engaged in a struggle for dominance with spring. This week, occasional snow flurries are giving winter the upper hand, but next week’s forecast is for much warmer temperatures as spring reasserts itself. As I drove the back roads yesterday in the Western Reserve, crocuses were blooming in several gardens, and yellow coltsfoot flowers were unfurling along the roadsides.

Skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, is the first wildflower to appear, often in late winter, when large colonies of its purple spathes melt their way through ice and snow in wetlands and along the edges of woodland streams. Inside the spathe is the round spadix, studded with tiny, pale yellow flowers. Through a process called thermogenesis, the skunk cabbage raises the temperature inside its spadix as high as 70 degrees, making it a magnet for insect pollinators, notably bees and flies, which are also attracted by the plant’s rank odor and purple spathe, reminiscent of a piece of rotting meat. Skunk cabbage contains toxic calcium oxalate crystals, which render the plant inedible to grazing animals and humans, though bears emerging from hibernation are said to relish skunk cabbages and consume them in large quantities. After the spathes wither, skunk cabbages produce large leaves, up to two feet in length, that form a sea of green in wetlands, as shown in the photo below.

Skunk cabbage leaves, Poland Municipal Forest, Mahoning County
Skunk Cabbage Leaves, Poland Municipal Forest, Mahoning County

At about the same time that skunk cabbage is blooming in the wetlands, visitors to Ohio’s woodlands may notice the tiny flowers of harbinger of spring, Erigenia bulbosa, whose diminutive umbels of white and purple flowers give rise to its other common name, pepper and salt. This miniature wildflower is a member of the carrot family.

Harbinger of Spring, Hinckley Reservation, Cleveland Metroparks
Harbinger of Spring, Hinckley Reservation, Cleveland Metroparks
Hepatica, Hinckley Reservation, Cleveland Metroparks
Hepatica, Hinckley Reservation, Cleveland Metroparks

By mid-March my favorite spring wildflower, the hepatica, Hepatica acutiloba, is flowering on woodland hillsides in southern Ohio. The color of the flowers may be white, lavender, pink, or sky blue, as shown in the photograph below, taken in Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve in Greene County, which should be on your Ohio bucket list if you enjoy viewing hillsides of early spring wildflowers. The liver-shaped leaves of hepatica, shown above, are an example of the doctrine of signatures, dating from the time of Galen, which stated that herbs that resemble various parts of the body can be used by herbalists to treat ailments of those parts of the body. During the 16th century the doctrine was repudiated.

Hepaticas, Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve, Greene County
Hepaticas, Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve, Greene County

At the same time that the annual pageant of spring wildflowers begins in Ohio’s woodlands, gardens around the Buckeye State also begin to put on a grand show. First up are snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, which can form dense carpets of white or cream flowers.    “Snowdrops” was the nickname that the British people gave during the Second World War to the United States Army military police, who were stationed in Britain before the invasion of Europe, because they wore a white helmet, gloves,  and gaiters against their olive uniform.

Snow Drops, Shaker Lakes Nature Center, Cleveland
Snowdrops, Shaker Lakes Nature Center, Cleveland

The reticulated iris, Iris reticulata, is another beautiful plant that flowers in many gardens at about the same time as snowdrops.

Reticulated Iris, The Holden Arboretum, Lake County
Reticulated Iris, The Holden Arboretum, Lake County

Kingwood Center in Mansfield puts on a spectacular display of early spring flowers, including an extensive collection of crocuses. I wrote about Kingwood’s crocus display here.

Crocuses, Kingwood Center, Mansfield
Crocuses, Kingwood Center, Mansfield

There are also fine displays of daffodils, Narcissus sp., in many of Ohio’s public gardens.

Daffodils, The Holden Arboretum, Lake County
Daffodils, The Holden Arboretum, Lake County

I will be visiting many of my favorite woodland wildflower areas and public gardens in Ohio, as well as a few new locations, as spring moves north through the Buckeye State over the next couple of months, and I look forward to sharing some images from these trips in future blog articles.

In the meantime, spring is almost here – enjoy!

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Thanks for the natural history, quirky facts, and lovely flowers on this overcast late winter day!

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